Book Reviews

Review Published in DNA

Two of a kind

Navtej Sarna

Democracy & Diversity: India And The American Experience
Edited by K Shankar Bajpai Oxford University
Press312 pages Rs595

It is a truism to state that India and the United States are the largest and oldest democracies respectively, and that they are democracies marked by unmatched internal diversity. The Indian democratic experiment, encompassing one billion people, every major religion in the world, a plethora of languages and amazing ethnic multiplicity has no parallel. The US, given the history of its formation and the complexity both of its political processes and its ethnic mix, provides a comparative experiment. A democratic commonality between the two is taken as a given, based on broad perceptions arising from the history of nation-building in the two countries, the iconic place in this nation-building of the founding fathers, widely recognised freedoms such as of speech and expression, an overt belief in the individual and his rights, high-profile elections, a very obvious rule of law and so on.So obvious and accepted are these perceptions that nobody seems to feel the need to go further and examine the underlying issues in detail. Perhaps that explains the lack of serious academic works examining, in comparative terms, the democratic processes in the two countries, particularly the handling of ethnic, linguistic and religious diversities. The present work conceived by scholar-diplomat K Shankar Bajpai during his days as visiting professor at Berkeley will therefore fill a much felt gap. Backed by the Ford Foundation, the project has obviously afforded sufficient time and space to the well known Indian and American scholars to spend time with each other and examine in empirical detail the various issues that are pulling at the democratic texture in the two countries — issues of federalism, minorities, languages, decentralisation — and see where one can learn lessons from the other. Several of the ideas thrown up in the book make for interesting analysis. One such is the examination of the concept of ‘nation-state’ as against ‘state-nation’ by Juan J Linz, Alfred Stepan and Yogendra Yadav. The classical understanding of a nation-state would mean that the territorial boundaries of a state should coincide with the perceived cultural boundaries of a nation or, in other words, every nation must be a state and every state a nation. Some successful democracies — Sweden, Portugal, Japan, Netherlands — are close to such an idea but in other places attempts to achieve such unity would imply the domination or privileging of one socio-cultural identity over others. A deliberate attempt to create a nation-state in the modern-day context is fraught with danger and could imply war, oppression, secession and so on. Polities that may have several nations living within their territorial boundaries have to think in terms of emerging as state-nations, where a sense of belonging is created and safeguards are embedded, even in the Constitution, to protect socio-cultural diversity. India, the essay concludes, has been remarkably successful in managing its multi-national tensions and emerging therefore as a state-nation. This concept also finds reflection when the discussion moves to the treatment of languages in the essay by Neera Chandoke. Both countries have experienced potentially destabilising language movements. The Indian state-nation’s response has been to pluralise the languages, even to the extent of re-organising states on the basis of linguistic identity. The United States, on the other hand, has in many states followed an ‘English only’ policy. Perhaps the reason lay in the fact that language — and particularly the English language — is seen intrinsic to identity and opportunity, especially so in a country in which immigrants form such a large proportion; learning English is part of the process of joining the American mainstream.Decentralisation presents another interesting contrast. In India, this process was for long limited to the administration context and has assumed a participative character only of late. Its purpose is generally seen to provide a voice to rural society and to give them a chance to redress situations that the state has been unable to handle, for instance, the removal of poverty. In the US, decentralisation has a much more democratic background and has taken on an elitist tinge, reflecting the desire of the privileged and the rich to live in enclaves. While in India, decentralisation has tried to end segregation, in the US, it has encouraged it. Democracy & Diversity, the reader must stand warned, is not an easy read. But for those in the business of studying the political dynamics of these two democracies, it provides many enriching insights. Navtej Sarna, diplomat and writer, is the author of We Weren’t Lovers Like That.